I have never had a dining experience like this — and I’m afraid this quirky gem of a restaurant could become an addiction.
BlackOut in the Jaffa Port of Tel Aviv-Yafo is the ultimate theme restaurant. Catch is – the gimmick inspires more fun and more meaning than any other eating experience you may ever have.
You eat in a pitch-black room, you can’t see your food (not to mention your cutlery, glasses, napkin, the water pitcher…), and you’re served by blind waiters and waitresses.
The Na Laga’at Center is the home of Black Out restaurant. It’s exceptionally unique in that it’s perhaps the only center in the world that caters to the deaf, the blind, and the deaf-blind communities and enables them to give of themselves, be creative, and earn a decent salary while doing it.
Na Laga’at means “please touch,” a welcoming phrase that counters the typical “please don’t touch” signs we encounter all too often. It’s a not-for-profit organization that opened its doors in 2007 and is comprised the Deaf-blind Acting Ensemble; Café Kapish, with its deaf waiters; and as mentioned, BlackOut, the pitch-black restaurant with its staff of blind waiters. More than 70 people are employed here, most of whom are blind, deaf, or deaf-blind.
I haven’t yet seen their internationally acclaimed performance (“Not By Bread Alone” – where they bake bread on stage), and I’ve only ever grabbed a quick drink at their cafe during a huge arts fest (I’ve heard the barristas encourage you to order in sign language that they teach you), but this restaurant…this restaurant! All I have to say is I left the building in total ecstasy.
Here’s the scoop.
You enter the big bright building (used to be an industrial hangar), take a left, and head for the reception area of the restaurant. It’s crucial to make a reservation in advance because there is very limited seating, and the configuration is such that they need to arrange guests just right on communal tables. The meal begins precisely at 9 pm (there’s a seating at 6 pm and a seating at 10 pm, but both are for abbreviated versions of the menu). While you wait for everyone to arrive, a deaf bartender hands you a glass of pink champagne. Once 9 pm rolls around (or thereabouts…it is Israel, after all), the hostess explains that you are to order in advance (prix fixe – 140 shekels for 3 courses & 90 shekels for 2 – fantastic kosher-dairy dishes…lots of fish, too), place all of your belongings -phones included – in lockers (if you lose anything in the restaurant, it’s near impossible to find), and wait for your table to be called. All guests are escorted train-style, with hands on the person in front of them, and led to their tables slowly and carefully.
Because it really is pitch-black. The walls are absorbent velvet. There are a few buffer rooms that lead out, the final one with black lights…so there is no possibility of seeing a thing. They warn that some people find it very disconcerting, unpleasant, or claustrophobic for the first few minutes.
I enjoyed it from the first second. In fact, I left feeling euphoric, and I really did not want to leave. I swear, it was better than Disneyworld.
Highlights included –
- Ordering the “mystery” for all three courses – the chef puts together something that isn’t on the menu – leaving you to figure it out in the dark. There is a veg or fish option, though.
- Eating with your hands – So much fun! Try eating quinoa, ceviche, and ratatouille with your fingers! It felt really liberating. I was so glad I there was a sink with soap upon entering and exiting. When we left, my dad smugly declared that he had eaten everything with his silverware. Ah well, he missed half the fun! At least he left with one thing to be proud of – he was the only one of all of us who felt sick and disoriented (and it seemed to us – bordering on a panic attack).
- Figuring out the mystery food – I am a big foodie (although I hate the word), I am the ultimate kitchen improvisationist, I went to culinary school, and I work in wine. I took this on as a personal challenge. Piece of cake, right? For most, no. But…I came out on top! Not only did I figure every dish out, I identified most if not all the spices and technical nuances of the dishes. I’m a snooty snob, I know. Then again, I was the only one adventurous enough to order the mystery dishes. How many people do you know who’d go to a restaurant and say, give me whatever you got…I don’t want to know what it is…
- Pouring water! It’s not just the finding and grasping the jug – it’s connecting the top of the jug to the glass, not spilling, knowing when there’s enough – my goodness! I think the best technique is to pour over a finger that is already dipped into the cup.
- Talking without seeing. You wouldn’t think this to be all that odd – most likely you’re going out to eat with people you already know. But there was a freshness and an ease I haven’t felt in years with my family. We’re a tense bunch. Nerves. Easy to rattle. But at BlackOut, I spoke when I wanted, and said what I wanted. I didn’t roll my eyes at my mother. It flowed. It was the healthiest moment my family has had all week. I think it has something to do with not seeing facial expressions, not fiddling with clothing, not being to analyze the mood of the people by what you see.
- Our dear waiter Eliran – your waiter is your ambassador. He leads you in, orients you, jokes with you, brings food, drinks, the works. And we had conversations! Great conversations! We asked questions about being blind, about the dead waiters at the cafe, no holds barred. It was so genuinely friendly and interesting. I dare say it even felt intimate. If I had to give an importance weight to the different elements of the restaurant, I would break it down as such: food 20%; darkness 40%; waiter 40%. You cannot survive there without him. He makes the darkness quite light, in every sense.
- Leaving the restaurant filled with a sense of joy, mirth, peace, silliness, and energy. I haven’t felt this “myself” in a long time.
Here is what I remember of the menu.
starter – smoked salmon topped with asparagus spears;
main – panko-breaded salmon (I know, they really should NOT have served salmon for both courses) on a bed of awesome authentic ratatouille;
dessert – malabi (a middle eastern type of pudding or custard – can be quite gelatinous – this wasn’t – very white – flavored with rosewater, nuts (peanuts in this case, but I prefer pistachio or almond), and shredded coconut, topped with a very sweet syrup).
Other memorable dishes my family had: ceviche of dennis fish on endive; some sort of pistachio gnocchi; seared drum fish with lovely herb infused quinoa salad; a creme anglaise filled pastry with halva (lovely sugared sesame paste); and a homemade chocolate-hazelnut ice cream (think nutella) with caramelized coriander seeds!
In between courses we were offered tiny little drinks – first a very spicy hot cider made with a bit of wine, orange juice, cinnamon, cloves, and rum – and before dessert, a teeny tiny passionfruit margarita.
I should stop writing. I should’ve a while ago. But if you’ve read this far, you can see how moved I was at this experience. I felt I participated in some sort of process. A performance. It woke something inside of me. My senses were heightened. I felt a lot of love here among these people and this environment.
So, folks…if you live in Israel, you have no excuse not to go! It’s kosher, there’s tons for vegetarians, it’s for a good cause, it’s friendly people, great food, and it may just be the most therapeutic experience you’ll have over a table…or in the dark, for that matter…
I giggled for an hour after after we left. I couldn’t stop smiling. I’m still smiling at the memory.